Eight goals against Malmö, ten goals against Rayo Vallecano, only three losses come Christmas, and yet every paper that can find a keyboard is printing the same stuff – Rafa Benitez is on borrowed time. At a glance, Benitez doesn’t cut the striking image of confidence and machismo that one associates with Real Madrid. Often teased for possessing the appearance of an overweight Spanish waiter, the 2005 Champions League-winning manager was hired for his madridismo and his acute tactical preparation, not his lukewarm man-management, regretfully. But that seems a less than comfortable fit for a club like Real Madrid. How can a coach hope to successfully orchestrate some of the biggest egos in football if he struggles to forge any kind of bond with his dressing room?
Benitez’s tenure at the Bernabéu started in tears, those of joy when he was unveiled as manager in a traditionally dressed-up press conference within the stadium’s luxury accommodations. Portrayed as a touching moment for a man who’d been raised as a Real Madrid academy product before injuries cut his playing career short, the more cynical might have pinned this display of emotion as a sign of weakness.
If Rafa Benitez has in fact lost the respect of the locker room already, he really is a dead man walking. Television cameras picked up Isco sarcastically rubbing his eyes in disbelief against Villarreal as he took his spot on the bench to find that Toni Kroos wasn’t a starter either. Furthermore, Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe reported mid-month that some players refer to Benitez as ‘the ten.’ This is meant as a mock because Benitez, like Mourinho, never played at a high level. So who is he to instruct them?
For many, his appointment as Madrid manager was a question of what have you done for me lately, Rafa? Benitez had previously proved his worth in Spain with two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup with Valencia in the early 2000s after guiding both Extremadura and Tenerife to Segunda División promotions in 98’ and 01.’ But since winning the Champions League by miracle happenstance in Istanbul with Liverpool and an FA Cup a year later in 2006, Benitez has only picked up a Europa League trophy as interim manager of Chelsea in 2013 and a Coppa Italia with Napoli in 2014. Forgive me for leaving out his Club World Cup championship in 2010 with Inter Milan. It’s hard to tack on merit to an award that takes any European champion two games to win.
But should anyone examine the numbers closely, Rafa Benitez hasn’t managed a team to a league title in over a decade. And should you ask Jose Mourinho, he’ll tell you again that when Benitez took over his treble-conquering Inter Milan in 2010, “in six month he destroyed the best team in Europe…” Rafa was sacked before Christmas. Hindsight is 20/20 but is Real Madrid this season an improvement or downgrade from the trophy-less version last season? Maybe time will tell.
Of course, many will argue that Madrid’s dilemma goes deeper than the manager, and that President Florentino Perez is to blame. In the line of fire for his borderline arrogant transfer policy and his swift dismissal of elite managers, it could be said that a more patient president might have allowed the largely popular Carlo Ancelotti learn from the mistakes of the last campaign , and try to correct them this season. Instead, Madrid are now swirling in a hellish vortex of turmoil.
Some pitfalls are out of Benitez’s hands, admittedly. The grave error of fielding the ineligible Denis Cheryshev against Cadiz in Real’s opening match of the Copa del Rey has axed the club from the competition, but that should have been dealt with by an earlier filter. Injuries have been nothing short of an epidemic as well. To make matters worse, club captain Sergio Ramos admitted publicly in November that the team has no confidence in the medical staff. And even though these multiplying thorns aren’t Rafa’s fault, they will ultimately add to the ever-amassing pressure on his shoulders.
The way I see it, Rafa is one cock-up away from Florentino Perez’s revolving door, despite the public vote of confidence after the Barcelona hiding. That being said, apart from the tricky visit to Valencia after the turn of the year, Real Madrid’s next six fixtures are all very winnable matches. That can mean one or two things – Benitez will be able to salvage his crisis and gain some momentum, or he’ll provide the club with the perfect excuse to sack him should he acquire another poor result. Either way, sitting in third place behind local and eternal rivals is never good enough at Real Madrid.